Piling Canada

Women in Heavy Construction

The tide is turning for women seeking employment in the construction industry
Written by Lisa Kopochinski
March 2015

Like many industries across Canada, heavy construction continues to face a looming shortage of skilled workers.

Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters predicts that Canada will have 1.3 million vacant skilled labour job positions by 2016, with no one to fill them. Between now and 2020, more than 200,000 construction industry employees are expected to retire. And an estimated one-third of the construction worker shortage is Alberta-based. According to the Government of Alberta, there are nearly 800 major capital projects – those valued at more than $5 million – planned or in progress, valued at a total of more than $220 billion. Meanwhile, Alberta’s unemployment rate sits at 4.7 per cent as of April 2014.

According to the Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training 2013 Statistics Report, the top trade choices for women in construction-related apprenticeships are welder (662); electrician (607); parts technician (399); steamfitter/pipefitter (245); and carpenter (209).

“Five thousand women will connect with our organization this year, asking for help to enter the field of construction,” said JudyLynn Archer, president and CEO of Women Building Futures (WBF), an Edmonton-based non-profit organization that provides pre-trades training to women.

Although it remains a challenge for women to find employment in this predominately male field, the tide is turning as more organizations strive to help them become trained and find jobs.

“Women are more than capable of this work,” said Archer. “The sooner they can be brought in to learn from the experts, many whom will retire over the next decade, the better.” 

WBF offers an extensive awareness program that includes helping women determine if a career in construction is a good match. WBF also provides workplace culture training, safety-certification, academic preparation and skill training to women as welders, plumbers, carpenters, boilermakers, millwrights, electricians, pipefitters and heavy equipment operators. Graduates are provided job-matching services, employment retention support and apprenticeship registration and completion support for as long as needed. Programs are funded through corporate sponsorships, fee-for-service recruitment and training contracts and government grants.

Archer says there has never been a better time in the history of our country for women to enter this industry. With worker shortages on the horizon and women looking for careers that provide a great lifestyle, a career in construction can be the perfect match.

“The average increase in annual income for women who graduate from a WBF pre-trades program is 127 per cent, and 169 per cent from the heavy equipment operator programs.”

Angela Carter is certainly glad she found WBF. This former resident of Moncton, N.B. drove from the Maritimes to Edmonton late last year in the hopes of securing work as a labourer. After completing the WBF heavy equipment operator program, what she has now is a career as an excavator operator for an Edmonton-based water and sewer company.

“I like getting dirty and I’ve always been fascinated with big machinery and equipment,” she said. “I just never had an opportunity to get on one and operate one until now. When I finished school, I ended up getting employment with a paving company. I was operating one of the packers, but I wanted to get into heavy equipment. The excavator was actually my dream piece. I’m still pinching myself. I can’t believe it is happening.”

Heavy construction can also be one of the more physically demanding areas of the industry. Carter often works in tight spaces and navigating the machinery can take a toll.

“You’re constantly moving around and the machines vibrate,” she said. “They call the excavator the retirement piece because your body does not move around as much. It depends on what you are operating because it can definitely take a toll on your body. That’s why it’s important to exercise, stay healthy, eat right and stay hydrated.”

Carter highly recommends WBF and says it provides wonderful opportunities for women to get their feet wet and decide what area of construction is right for them.

“The program gives you a taste of different equipment so you can see what you like better.”

Steps to get there

Construction is an industry where workers typically earn a very good living, and over the next 10 years there will be a growing shortage of skilled workers.

Still, Archer strongly recommends one do their research to determine if this is a good career choice for them.

“Then get some training and safety certification so you will be well prepared to be a productive and safe worker, right out of the gate,” she said.

As well as WBF, there are a number of other organizations across Canada that help women decide if a construction career is the right fit. One is Vancouver-based Canadian Construction Women (CCW).

“CCW is an organization that leverages the talents, experiences, networks and relationships of our members to connect other members, industry professionals, sponsors, mentors and other organizations to them,” said Lindsey Nelson, communications director at CCW. “When someone becomes a CCW member, they gain connection to over 1,100 members in various positions and disciplines within the industry. We’ve helped connect women with other organizations when they have employment needs, and have also connected employers looking for that ‘perfect candidate.’”

With an industry as varied as construction, the opportunity to find an applicable or interesting job are endless.

“The more women are introduced to the variety of opportunities in the construction industry, the more they realize the multitude of paths that construction can offer and are excited about those choices,” said Nelson.

And because of the ever-expanding options for construction employment, Nelson suggests that women do the following: 

  • Find an organization that can help them connect with a person already in that field 
  • Research trade associations 
  • Contact local businesses where they may be able to gain an “informational interview” 
  • Contact the Industry Training Authority (ITABC) for examination requirements and funding information 
  • Contact Women in Trades Training (WITT) for information 

“These are just a few ideas to get started, but also project your career out five or 10 years, and think of the position you would like to have, and how you will continue to stay challenged and passionate.”

In Ontario, the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC), a not-for-profit organization, is also dedicated to the success of women in the construction industry.

CAWIC recently implemented a 36-month action plan – that began January 1, 2014 – that encourages industry employers, trade unions, alternative unions and open shop employers to increase their hiring, retention and advancement of women within the construction industry. Its goal is to provide workplace and career-specific tools to guide and support 1) women entering/re-entering or transitioning into the construction industry workforce; 2) women already in the workforce facing challenges in relation to remaining in the construction workforce or advancement; and 3) the employer to address internal challenges in hiring, retention and advancement of female employees.

At the end of 36 months – and based on its experience working with approximately 60 women in Ontario, Alberta and Newfoundland/Labrador – the plan will be widely promoted and distributed across the Canadian construction industry. CAWIC will also create a permanent committee targeted for hiring women that will be available to the industry via forums and discussion groups.

All of this is great news for women and for those like Carter, who want a lifelong construction career. In fact, not only is Carter’s current job her first construction job, she is also the first female operator her company has hired.

“No pressure there,” Carter said. “I was a little bit nervous when I showed up for work the first day. But the guys are great. They are always asking if they can help with anything. We’re all one crew. I couldn’t ask for a better group to work with.”

Construction industry resources

For women interested in a career in heavy construction – or any other facet of construction – a number of resources are available, such as: 

“Construction companies can do their part in encouraging more women to enter the field,” said JudyLynn Archer, president and CEO of Women Building Futures. “Companies should – in this order – hire and indenture more first year apprentices; increase women’s success by hiring women who have experience and/or have completed a good training program, including workplace culture awareness; understand and clearly communicate your workplace culture norms and jobsite expectations before hiring.”

The Construction Owners Association of Alberta and WBF also developed a Best Practices Guide for Employers for Hiring and Retaining Tradeswomen. The guide and an accompanying seminar are available through www.womenbuildingfutures.com. Piling Canada

Category: Business

About Us

Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

Sign Up

Submit your email to receive our e-newsletter.